I met Romanian director and actor Liviu Ciulei while I was a graduate student at Columbia University.  He was teaching directing and Shakespeare and the first thing I learned from him was how to correctly spell his name.  That spelling talent came in handy because when others in the department needed to write Liviu a note, they sought me out for help in composing his name.  Liviu is more fragile today at age 87, but the strength of the name, and his talent, remains within me.

We previously linked a video of Liviu in action directing a scene, but it has since been removed by YouTube. His hallmark lighted cigarette punctuated his direction just as it did in class. The video was not in English, but you could still see the universal communication happening in its deepest form.

Liviu was always hustling.  Between classes he was on the pay phone in the hallway trying to get directing gigs.

He originally came to the USA to direct for Zelda Fichandler at the world-famous Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and, once he landed here, he did not want to return to Bucharest.  After Howard Stein retired from Columbia University, Liviu moved to NYU to teach for Zelda in the graduate acting program.

Liviu was kind to me and he took an interest in my career and he read my work even though he didn’t think much of living Playwrights.  He was also the professor at Columbia who told us Playwrights that the director’s job is to place his thumbprint in the eye of the production — and Liviu said that while teaching us the merits of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck — which is one of the most innovative and daring plays ever written.

Liviu loved to be provocative in class, and in the real world, and that was his greatest gift to us:  Think big!  Fill the Empty Space!  Bring LIVING to a LIVE Stage!


  1. Wow, David. I really hope to meet him. I will watch this video when I can actually hear it since I am fluent in Romanian. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Fantastic, Gordon! Let us know if you find anything interesting. Were you formally expected to learn Romanian or did it just flow naturally around you while you were growing up?

  3. Great question. It was my first language because that is all my Romanian parents, grandparents, and great grandmother spoke around me.

  4. Indeed it was in America. Good ol’ New Jersey. I started learning English in Preschool when my mother was confronted by my preschool teacher, wondering why jibberish was coming out of my mouth. That jibberish was Romanian. I would speak only Romanian. The teacher thought I was a special needs child. A doctor told my mother to exclusively speak English to me. The rest of the family continued speaking Romanian, however.
    Also, I avoided Sesame Street for a long time — because it wasn’t in Romanian!

  5. Now I’m confused. You were immersed in 100% Romanian from birth and did not speak English. Your highly educated chemist mother took you to an American preschool… and expected what… that all the children and staff spoke Romanian and not English? How could she not prepare you to communicate in English?

  6. David, you are so right about “universal human communication”…
    Liviu Ciulei was a delight to watch, – I could pick up a couple of English words but overall understood what he wanted and he was all animated and happy when the actors on the stage could actually perform the way he was showing…powerful!

  7. Gordon, it would be great to know what he actually saying…let us know!

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